The spirit of research

Last week, I once again escaped from the demands of everyday work to think and talk about higher education, universities, learning and teaching, and academic life. This time it was a gathering of self-defined higher education scholars. We are about 30 people, predominantly (entirely for this meeting) women, a mixture of professional (non-academic or administrative, for those outside of Australian nomenclature) staff, academics and academic developers, established scholars and doctoral candidates.

The group was initially brought together by generous scholar Tai Peseta as a way of making space for researching higher education. We span five universities, and meet about three times a year, with institutions taking turns to host and provide lunch. (I can highly recommend this as a low key, informal way to build a research and support network. If your budget can’t stretch to a catered lunch, ask people to bring a lunchbox or pay their own way.)

For this meeting, hosted by Amani Bell, Kate Thomson and Delyse Leadbeatter at the University of Sydney, we were asked to write 150 words in answer to the question: What does quality higher education research mean to you? This was my response:

The metrics that predominate in higher education research privilege quantity over quality: H indices, citation counts, journal impact factors, grant success rates etc. What else might quality look like? I’ve been thinking about this in relation to activism and social justice, affect and subjective measures of success, and collaborative research relationships.

Based on work on quality indicators for learning and teaching that are attempting to move beyond measures of student satisfaction, quality is also how research is supported and resourced within our institutions, who is included and excluded from support and resourcing, and what professional learning for researchers at all levels looks like (e.g. mentoring, reflective practice, collaboration).

An example that informs my understanding is a book I am currently reading: Michelle Boulous Walker’s (2017) Slow Philosophy: Reading against the institution, which describes ‘institutional reading’ as hasty, shallow, simplified and output-focussed, disengaged from a love of wisdom.

Discussing quality in higher education research, we talked about the holistic process of research, creative outputs, alternatives to impact, and the importance of reading:

In the discussion at my table, Giedre Kligyte used the evocative phrase ‘the spirit of research’ to encompass our understanding of quality. You get a glimpse of what it meant for us in our notes:


I went looking for other mentions of this phrase, and didn’t have far to go.

On my bookshelf sits Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Now in it eighth edition, my father gave me a copy of this when I started my PhD. I still reference it frequently. Turabian uses the phrase as a subheading to sum up this view:

In some parts of the world, it’s still considered more important to guard settled beliefs than to test them. But in places informed by the values of research, we think differently: we believe not only that we may question settled beliefs, but that we must, no matter how much authority cherishes them (2009: p 129).

I also found the phrase in Elizabeth and Grant’s (2013) ‘The spirit of research has changed’, which explores academic identities in the managerial university. Here is an extract from one of their poetic transcriptions in response to the prompt “If you say to yourself, ‘I am a researcher’, how do you feel, what do you think about and what associations do you make?”:

The spirit of research has changed.
research is seen
I think
as a commodity.
Research brings external
The spirit of research has changed.
research has a new meaning.
I guess I feel
I never used to.

Yet again poetry offers an opportunity to write outside of (or against) the quantification of academic research. On my reading list this week: Bonnie Dean’s poetic piece in the International Journal of Doctoral Studies and Quinlan’s How Higher Education Feels.

17 thoughts on “The spirit of research

  1. I really like what you’ve written here Agnes. Here’s a few things that struck me.

    – Not only do impact factors and the like privilege quantity over quality – they actually deliberately confuse the two. Quality is seen AS a certain type of quantity! (Eg. The presupposition that number of citations indicates quality, not faddishness, easy access, etc.)
    – “quality is also how research is supported and resourced within our institutions”. What I think you’re doing here is moving to a definition of research that nominates a whole set of social interactions. It seems to me that a proper recognition (and institutional focus) on this would be a big step towards improving the number and types of employment in research. Ie. A clear setting out of the many interacting roles and functions would help with recognising those roles as worth supporting – because they are essential to “research”.

    On this basis, where in the process does the slow work of reading happen? Would some people focus on this, while others do less, and more of something else? (On the proviso that each recognises the others’ importance!).


    • Once again, Andrew, you have asked a great tricky question that I will need to mull over! I would hope slow reading could be a collaborative task – much like the way colleagues and I read identity/ subjectivity work recently. I have another post about this in the works, stimulated by Walker’s description of “institutional reading” as anything but slow.

      You also asked a question in response to a previous post about lack of recognition for achievements. I haven’t forgotten this, but it’s complex. Misrecognition – i.e. being recognised for the things you are not so proud of – is also a problem.


  2. I’d forgotten about my last question 🙂 And I won’t pile up more for you; patience is required here, isn’t it? As you know, I like thinking about these problems. Maybe even one day I’ll publish about them. Unsurprisingly – I’m a philosopher of methods and social science knowledge. I’ll have to check out the Walker book.


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  12. As a doctoral student in higher education leadership I was gratified to run across this discussion in the context of another search. I was recently told that I am a “slow academic,” because I’ve taken twice as long to research and write my dissertation prospectus as any other student. I also needed a three week extension during comps last spring.

    I’m an older student, and not unfamiliar with higher education practices and motivations at the level of student, staff, faculty, and dean, all of which I’ve been at some point. I’ve spent some time musing about why I am a “slow academic.” I’ve concluded that I’ve been unable to shake off the new reality of higher education: that a achieving a higher education degree, should be “nasty, brutish and short,” with apologies to Thomas Hobbes (1651). Reasoned discussion of controversial or complex topics, the joy of research and learning, facing the challenges of academia with alacrity, all have fallen to the overarching goal of achieving a degree for immediate societal utility and reward. In fairness, society has contributed to this state of mind by insisting that students bear the financial burden of learning (unless at an ivey, perhaps). The result, in my experience, has been the creation of a generation of hasty academics in higher education, who take little joy from learning, only in the status, financial reward and power of a doctorate.

    I’m proud of being a slow academic; slowly reading a paper on an unsuspected topic, over a cup of coffee, is right up there with the plunge of a roller coaster. If I could, I would spend the next 4 years on my dissertation to insure that I know my field from top to core. Instead, the advice I’ve been given is to choose a topic that is easy, quantitative (if possible), does not use people (if possible), shows big statistical differences, is not a passion, and takes no more that 18 months (if possible). It’s my own rebellion against this that has seen me choose a topic that I do have some passion for, and take a chance the the dean will grant me an extension or two.

    As I said, I’m an older student, in a generational cohort that views lifelong learning as a 3-part series on travel to Greece at the local community college. People ask me why I’m in a doctoral program and what I’m going to do with it? I have to answer that I don’t know. I wanted to teach, but I’ve found that less and less of an option. In the end, if I can get past the dismal grind of the dissertation process, all I will have is being a “slow academic,” and I’m thinking maybe that’s enough.


    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Alan. It can be challenging to resist a culture of acceleration, and refuse to be in the same race as others. Best of luck as a slow doctoral candidate and academic. Enjoy the process.


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